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Gigonomics, working one gig after another, may be new economic reality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 5, 2012 - Underemployment.

Survival jobs.


Kevin Wilson, 52, of St. Louis understands the terminology coined in the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008 to describe the plight of millions of Americans who lost their jobs and struggled to make ends meet while they searched for new ones.

“The new economic reality, especially for those of us in white-collar positions, may be that you don’t have a permanent full-time job -- that you do hop from gig to gig,’’ said Wilson, who was first interviewed by the Beacon for a story on survival jobs published in April 2011. Since then, Wilson's job history has grown even longer, but he believes things are looking up.

In spring 2009, Wilson was laid off from a consulting company that advised small- and medium-sized businesses. In the free-falling economy, his former clients could no longer afford consultants, and his assignments simply stopped coming.

For the next two years, Wilson worked whenever and wherever he could, taking temporary, low-paid “survival jobs” to stretch his unemployment benefits. He worked several months for the U.S. Census; then nights for a contractor remodeling Walmart stores. Wilson said the pay, $15 an hour, was half as much as he made in his worst year in business management but twice as much as he took home in unemployment benefits. He was thankful for the work. He and his wife survived financially, largely due to her job -- she works full time as a paralegal -- and the fact that he was covered by her health insurance.

At the end of 2011, Wilson returned to consulting, working as a subcontractor for a Denver-based company that assists retailers with promotional sales to increase their cash flow or reduce their inventory -- or to go out of business.

“When business is bad, it’s harder to convince somebody to spend money on consulting, but that’s the time they need it most,’’ Wilson said.

Wilson said he is excited to be back in the consulting field, and he has thrown himself into his work. During his first project in Arkansas, he estimates that he worked 60 hours a week, though his contract called for 40. He wanted to do a good job for his client, and being away from home he had little need for free time and little money for after-hours dining or entertainment. He is an independent subcontractor, not an employee, so he receives no employee benefits. And he pays his own expenses.

“I’m still looking for something permanent and full time,’’ Wilson said. “Both my wife and I would like for me to have a steady check and be home. Right now I’m doing what I’ve got to do, and this is good work.’’

In the recovery room

Though Wilson believes that his personal situation has improved in the past year, he says he is still in the recovery phase -- much like the U.S. economy.

“We were never in danger of losing our house, and we were always able to pay the bills. But we were on a precipice,’’ he said. “When my unemployment ran out, the extended benefits and everything, things were getting tight. The bank balance wasn’t holding steady. My wife’s making good money but not enough to support us both if I’m not bringing something in.’’

His concerns over day-to-day survival have been replaced by worries about the future.

“A year ago, all I was thinking about is that I have to have money coming in. I have to be able to help support myself and my wife. We’re stable now. We can pay the bills, but I don’t have any savings. I don’t have any retirement,’’ he said.

He doesn’t count on Social Security and Medicare being available when he reaches retirement age because he doesn’t know what will happen to his benefits if Congress acts to rein in the costs of those programs.

“My wife’s got a pretty good package, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough for the two of us,’’ Wilson said.

Measuring the pain of long-term joblessness

In January, the national unemployment rate was 8.3 percent, the lowest rate since February 2009. The Department of Labor said the number of long-term unemployed -- those jobless for 27 weeks or more -- was 5.5 million, about 43 percent of the nation’s unemployed.

But measuring the true pain of long-term joblessness in the U.S. is difficult because the Department of Labor does not track people who max out of their unemployment benefits. The length of unemployment benefits varies by state, but 99 weeks is the maximum.

Analysts agree that about 7.5 million American jobs were lost between December 2007, the official start of the recession, and June 2009, when they say it ended. That figure represents the net loss of jobs during the period. A February report on unemployment insurance by the Government Accountability Office, put the number of Americans who lost their jobs from 2007 to 2009 at 15 million. Half of those displaced workers -- 7.5 million -- received unemployment insurance. About one-fourth of those individuals -- about 2 million -- exhausted their unemployment benefits by early 2010 and another 3.5 million exhausted benefits in 2010 and 2011.

Most of the displaced workers who exhausted their unemployment benefits by January 1010 faced difficult economic circumstances, according to the report.

Other findings:

  • The unemployment rate among those displaced workers was a steep 46 percent in January 2010.
  • The poverty rate of displaced workers who had exhausted their benefits was 18 percent as compared to 13 percent for working-age adults.
  • Most of the displaced workers appeared to have worked at some point in 2009 or were supported by another household member who was working.

The 99ers are still waiting

For Americans who max out of their benefits -- dubbed the 99ers -- life continues to grow harder, says Connie Kaplan, a self-described 99er activist. Kaplan, who advocates for the extension of benefits, believes that many people still don’t realize that the jobless can run out of unemployment pay. She estimates that there are 7 million 99ers.

Kaplan is one of the subjects of Salon.com’s video documentary series on the long-term unemployed. The series by director Immy Humes focuses on a group of people who live in New York.

Also trying to spread the word about 99ers are groups such as the American 99ers Union, a nonprofit organization formed in 2010.

Kaplan, a native New Yorker, said she was downsized from her job as a corporate librarian after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. She relocated to Florida, where she worked in real estate until the housing market crashed. When she couldn’t find a new job in Florida, she returned to New York to be near family and friends. But she still has not found full-time work.

“No one would hire me. I tried everything under the sun and when my unemployment ran out, that was when I said, ‘Holy cow, what am I going to do,’’’ she said.

Kaplan, who says she is “over 50,” exhausted her unemployment benefits in March 2010. She said she survives by working temporary jobs, selling Avon products and by renting the second bedroom of her apartment.

Kaplan said she is fluent in several languages, including Spanish, and she thought that would help her find work in a melting pot like New York. She thinks that her age is working against her -- and so is the fact that she has been out of work for so long that some employers won’t even consider her applications.

Kaplan pointed to the successes of an unemployment program in Connecticut called “Platform to Employment” that was recently featured on “60 Minutes.” The program places the long-term unemployed as interns in businesses and pays their salaries.

“Corporations would realize that our skills are not eroded,’’ Kaplan said.

Joining the 99er movement has been her way of fighting back.

“The last thing in the world that I ever thought was me being an activist,’’ Kaplan said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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